Know Thy Audience: Marketing the Horror Film It Follows

What happens when you learn mid-campaign that you’re targeting the wrong audience?

Every now and again when working on a movie that is really special, we are made aware that our initial assumptions about marketing and target audience are completely off, and data brings to light new opportunities.

Last summer, we worked on the Facebook advertising in Denmark for the horror film It Follows(David Robert Mitchell, 2015). It became one of our most contentious and interesting film projects to date, and after reading Jason Coffman’s article on Medium, I felt that the time had come to put pen to paper about this experience.

You might also like:

Ravenous: Marketing a Horror Movie in the Social Media Era

It Follows premiered to rave reviews in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2014 and went on to be nominated for various awards at 30 festivals around the world. It was a hit in the 30+ age group as revealed by box office numbers and our own advertising numbers.

Yet It Follows failed to impress the typical horror movie audience. That is where our initial assumptions about the campaign’s target were wrong and led us to switch targeting to an older demographic while focussing the message on the young.

Our campaign in little old Denmark

Gruvi created a microsite featuring the trailer, showtimes, and ticketing links. We also developed a Facebook newsfeed player for the film, which was to serve to promote the movie in Facebook posts with a particular focus on users interested in the horror genre.

We were quite late into the campaign and focused only on the advertising, not managing the community. Starting late restricted the time we had available for testing.

Typical horror targeting

The typical target audience for horror is the group of 15- to 24-year olds and mostly male. Given that the main characters in It Follows have similar ages, the initial tactics were simply to follow a tried-and-tested pattern: we set the targeting and basic age categories (as above) and identified a series of movies with which to compare the film.

We promoted several posts with text such as Did you like movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY? Then IT FOLLOWS is the movie you’ve been waiting for! (This translates more succinctly in Danish.)

Immediately, people commented in droves, and at least 60% of the responses were not positive.

For example, commentators complained It Follows was over-hyped and not nearly as scary as it was professed to be. Some qualified it as downright boring. Many warned others not to waste their money on buying a ticket, and some even demanded their life back!

Here’s the comment section of one of the posts. The first three read: “It’s really bad. Like really!!!”, “It’s certainly not worth the money” and “Fell asleep… it’s really not worth it”. Another user tags one of her friends in her comment who replies “We must?” and is told in return “Yes (thumbs up).

These negative expressions took us and the page administrators at Angel Films by surprise. The primary issue was not that members of the targeted age group weren’t engaged with the film, but that they disliked it and weren’t shy about expressing it.

Comparing the film to shock-horror titles such as The Ring (2002) also negatively impacted sentiment, as young people who saw the film complained It Follows was in no way similar to these other titles. And they were right.

Unexpectedly, viewers over 30 defended and praised the film. Older viewers didn’t just like the film, they loved it.

Getting on the right track

Turning things around depended on identifying and targeting the right audience. In order to achieve that, we ran test campaigns aimed at various age groups. These tests revealed that males over 30 were actually the most responsive.

One particular post, promoting a still from the film in which the main female character floats in a pool, engaged males over the age of 50. The fact that our target audience was predominantly male was no surprise — it was the age that was uncommon.

By switching the target at the mid-campaign mark, we found it to be between 50 and 75% cheaper to get an older audience to engage with the advertising as illustrated in the following table:

We also adjusted our messages to younger audiences, removing references to other movies, focused images on the lead character and updated the text to bring it more in line with the film.

Consequently, the number of negative comments plummeted in subsequent advertised posts directed at younger audiences.

What could have been done to improve results?

It Follows performed well in Denmark, with a total of 16,000 admissions for the film. Had we known at the beginning of the campaign what we knew by the end of it, the outcome could have been even better. So what could we have done differently? Here are some suggestions:

Do not take target audiences’ established ideas for granted

Test early with small budgets to see how the creative performs. Make immediate adjustments once the consensus is in. By dropping references to other horror titles early on in the campaign, we were able to significantly reduce the number of negative comments.

Testing and optimizing also allowed us to understand the audience for the film title: men and women over the age of 30 who appreciated the art house feel of 1980s horror movies and their “creepiness.” This is a clear trend and something that has been noted for films like The Witchand The Babadook.

Regarding costs, reaching a large number of people at the lowest possible cost is ideal. However, if a campaign is not reaching the right people, it’s a waste of resources. Reaching the right audience is far more valuable and ultimately more cost effective as it activates word of mouth, which multiplies the effectiveness of the paid ads.

Make sure the community manager is prepared

Despite the fact that the engagement early on in the campaign was primarily motivated by negative sentiment toward the film, exploiting this conversation and maintaining the discussions could have helped to get more potential audience members on board.

Community management could have also focused on educating the audience on this new horror film subgenre. Art-house horror is about creepiness as opposed to the out-and-out shock and awe of The Ring, Paranormal Activity, and so forth.

If we had been running the page admin, we would have countered the negative comments with video reviews (like this one from the guys at Red Letter Media) and dropped them directly into the comments, updating everyone who had shared, liked, or commented the post.

Again, films like It Follows are part of a subgenre that attracts a different audience than typical horror films. A wider analysis of the appeal of art-house horror would likely produce interesting results in terms of actual target audiences, audience pools, and viewing habits.

That being said, we would relish the opportunity to work on a wider campaign for another art-house horror title (it’s a shame we missed The Witch). If quality is up to par with It Follows, then we could do amazing things!

This article was originally published on Gruvi and is presented here as part of the editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Gruvi.  © [2016] [Gruvi]. All rights reserved.

Gruvi is a technology-based media agency that helps film distributors and producers around the world reach and build audiences for their films. The company offers a suite of products and services including programmatic solutions dedicated to serving campaigns on various platforms for the entertainment industry. Gruvi also publishes a blog focusing on content discoverability and audience management in the digital environment.
Read Bio